Film & TV

Sound Design

Ken Burns

Lesson time 11:20 min

To truly immerse an audience in your film, sound design is key. Ken teaches you how to spot for sound and harness the vast array of aural tools at your disposal.

Ken Burns
Teaches Documentary Filmmaking
The 5-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.
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I don't in any way want to take away from the power of the image. There is nothing more powerful. We say the cliche, a picture is worth a thousand words, and indeed, it is. But you cannot also deny how important these oral components are, the words spoken, the songs sung, the music played, the effects in all of their glory. Whatever it is, this can be hugely important, and the most dynamic elements at times. And all you have to do to prove what I am saying is take just a run of the mill horror film, the teenage girls in her pajamas. She's leaving her bedroom. We know something bad is happening, and she's heading to the bathroom down the hall. So turn off the volume, and it's nothing. Put back the volume, and, you know, whether it's, you know, Bernard Herrmann in "Psycho" in the shower scene, that is a huge part of the dynamic of what's going on. You can see in the opening of the "Vietnam" film, there's a moment when we add the most horrible banshee scream to some footage of the confusion of soldiers in that first PTSD where they're rolling over, and there's two or three cuts, and a guy just goes like this. We don't know what it was, but we added this distant horrific banshee scream. And if-- if that didn't in some ways get your attention, then I don't know what will. [HELICOPTER WHIRRING] [MUSIC PLAYING] You want to use everything at your disposal to ask people to let go of the compelling narrative that is their life and to submit to the narrative that we think will add to their life. And among the many tools in the toolbox to do that is to have sound so realistic that it can be startling, where fighter planes pass by and through. And the modern sound and technology has permitted us to do so many wonderful things. And I was always sort of disappointed in the soundtrack of so many documentaries that seem to have, you know, two different sounds. One was troops tramping, and the other was cannons firing, and that was it. We sort of felt that if we were going to try to will these old photographs alive, we had to get into very, very complex sound effects, and we have done this with increasing, I think, complexity as we have moved along so that in the Civil War, in the middle of Gettysburg, I think we had 26 tracks going at once. Now, I think the maximum number of tracks in the Vietnam film was 160 in the middle of the Tet Offensive. Most of the footage we receive is MOS without sound, and we have to build it from scratch, and so we do that. And it is a huge important part of what we do, and we spend a long time sound spotting. That is, to say we end it with three or four effects tracks by the time we get to rough cut. And then maybe by the time we lock, we may have a few more tracks than that. But then we open it up to many, and we spend a lot of time thinking about when it should be that 150 tracks going and when it should be nothing. And what yo...

The drama of truth

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Great class - but I really dislike the nagging BEFORE YOU GO ON screens begging for reviews. Really ANNOYS me. Masterclass is a premium paid product and the marketing dept steps in breaking my enjoyment. I am paying to not get nagged. HATE THE NAGGING!!!!

I really enjoyed the reminder that you should enjoy the process of making your doc. I learned to use Sound FX to enhance the b-roll and interview. I really enjoyed how excited Ken was in sharing his stories and techniques.

Really far more interesting and inspiring than I expected. There is a passion for his craft that is truly inspiring.

Great course, KB’s insights into his documentary approach, and the main topics of consideration for our own. Blessings.


Joe S.

His sound design is awesome! And to go and record it using authentic pieces (guns, artillery, etc.) Even the part where the soldier gets hit and concussed...there is silence...but a high pitched ringing in his head. Truly fabulous sound design.

Andrew K.

It has been about 4 months since the class was available online and in 4 months, Ken could not answer any student question or provide feedback for any student assignment. Talk about NOT going the extra mile!

Andrew K.

Ken is very conscientious about making a film. Great. But shouldn't he also be conscientious in teaching this class? He has not answered a single student's question nor given feedback to any student's assignment, even though that is part of his job. When I signed up and paid for this class, it was the understanding that the instructor would do both of these things. He did none. I feel disappointed in this class because the instructor is not answering any student's questions (I don't just mean mine - I mean any student) and is not giving feedback on any student assignment ( I don't mean mine per se - but any student).

David C.

Powerful class, thanks so much Ken. It's easy to forget how important sound is and this is a great reminder and enthused of ideas.

Sunny N.

Authentication of sound used in film is as important as authentication of visuals is my main takeaway from this lesson. What a lesson--getting the facts right is more than checking names, dates and other historical details. Placing the correct sounds in a correct geographical location or time or season builds audience trust. If you get the sound wrong, you lose credibility. For example, placing the sound of a ringing phone in a visual frame depicting a time before the invention of the telephone.

Franc C.

My team will take KB's idea of layering several sounds over photographs and also using heart beats at appropriate moments to add the proper emotional atmosphere. After watching these last few chapters on editing, voice narration and sound design, I can clearly see that we will need much more time to finesse cuts and sound design. Thank you, Ken.

Bob Z.

Good job Ken. Sound design is so important and its great to go that extra mile.

Wendell W.

I reminds me of how much should go into making a powerful documentary film.

Richard C.

Once again, I find myself looking at the chapter description and asking, "Really? Is that all you took away from this?" But I have to stop quibbling with the marketing exigencies of the young copywriters who've been asked to provide the descriptions here, because the course itself is beautifully and respectfully filmed and edited, and the marketing trash can't detract from the reality of the precious gift we have been given here. (But next time, try harder, please.)